Colombia plane crash: Bolivia suspends airline that operated flight

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(The Guardian) Bolivian authorities have suspended the license of a tiny charter airline whose plane crashed in Colombia this week after apparently running out of fuel, killing 71 people, including most of a Brazilian soccer team on its way to a regional cup final.

Monday night’s disaster sent shockwaves across the global soccer community and plunged Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, into mourning. The small Chapecoense team was travelling on a charter flight operated by airline LaMia Bolivia to the biggest game in its history, the final of the Copa Sudamericana.

The players pose for a photograph before taking off on the doomed flight to Colombia (Daily Mail photo)
The players pose for a photograph before taking off on the doomed flight to Colombia (Daily Mail photo)

Investigators combing the crash site on a wooded hillside outside of Medellin found no traces of fuel in the wreckage of the BAe 146, made by Britain’s BAE Systems Plc, signalling that the crash may have resulted from lack of fuel.

International flight regulations require aircraft to carry enough reserve fuel to fly for 30 minutes after reaching their destination.

“In this case, sadly, the aircraft did not have enough fuel to meet the regulations for contingency,” said Freddy Bonilla, secretary of airline security at Colombia’s aviation authority.

Remains of the plane
Remains of the plane

Bolivian authorities said they were suspending LaMia’s operating license and replacing the management of its aviation authority to ensure a transparent investigation. It said that neither decision implied wrongdoing.

Medellin air traffic controllers asked the LaMia pilot to wait while another flight made an emergency landing. Details on the length of the wait and problems with the other flight were not immediately available.

Air traffic controller Yaneth Molina, who received the distress call, said in a letter written to colleagues that she had received death threats following the crash.

“I did all that was humanly possible and technically necessary to preserve the lives of the passengers, but unfortunately my efforts weren’t enough,” Molina wrote in her letter, which was later released to the press.

A crackling recording obtained by Colombian media of Bolivian pilot Miguel Quiroga’s final words showed he told the control tower at Medellin’s airport that the plane was “in total failure, total electrical failure, without fuel”.

He requested urgent permission to land, and then the audio went silent.

LaMia chief executive officer Gustavo Vargas on Wednesday said the plane had been correctly inspected before departure and should have had enough fuel for about four and a half hours. In such situations, it is at the pilot’s discretion whether to refuel, Vargas said.

Only 0.5% of accidents on record were blamed on low fuel, according to the US-based Flight Safety Foundation.

In the soccer club’s small farming hometown of Chapeco in southern Brazil, workers on Thursday erected temporary structures in the stadium to shelter the coffins of 51 victims – players, staff and journalists – expected to arrive back on Friday for an open-air wake.

United for one last time, these are the coffins containing the remains of Brazilian footballers killed in the devastating Colombia air crash (Daily Mail)
United for one last time, these are the coffins containing the remains of Brazilian footballers killed in the devastating Colombia air crash (Daily Mail photo)
United for one last time, these are the coffins containing the remains of Brazilian footballers killed in the devastating Colombia air crash (Daily Mail)
United for one last time, these are the coffins containing the remains of Brazilian footballers killed in the devastating Colombia air crash (Daily Mail photo)

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100,000 fans – about half the city’s population – were expected to attend, as were Brazilian president Michel Temer and Gianni Infantino, president of world soccer governing body Fifa.

On Wednesday night, when the Copa Sudamericana final had been scheduled, tens of thousands of fans assembled in tribute at Chapecoense’s arena and the stadium in Medellin of rival team Atlético Nacional.

“We Brazilians will never forget the way in which Colombians have felt as their own the pain of this terrible disaster that ended the historic dream of Chapecoense,” foreign minister Jose Serra told the crowds in Medellin.

Fox Sports Brasil, which lost six of its journalists in the crash, broadcast 90 minutes of a black screen in the time slot of Wednesday’s game.

A spokesman for Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch said an inspector for the agency and Colombian officials would transport the aircraft’s black boxes back to the UK, where the information will be downloaded.

Only six on board the flight survived: three Chapecoense team members, a journalist and two Bolivian crew members.

Heartbreaking pictures show the moment footballers broke down in tears as they gathered with family and fans to remember teammates wiped out in a devastating plane crash in Colombia (Daily Mail photo)
Heartbreaking pictures show the moment footballers broke down in tears as they gathered with family and fans to remember teammates wiped out in a devastating plane crash in Colombia (Daily Mail photo)

Some have wondered why Chapecoense used the charter company instead of a commercial airline. Club vice-president Luiz Antonio Palaoro said LaMia had a track record of transporting soccer teams around South America, and it had used the airline before.

Mourning soccer fans in Medellin and the southern Brazilian town of Chapeco, where the team is from, held simultaneous stadium tributes to the victims. Atletico Nacional fans are pictured holding candles as part of a tribute (Daily Mail photo
Mourning soccer fans in Medellin and the southern Brazilian town of Chapeco, where the team is from, held simultaneous stadium tributes to the victims. Atletico Nacional fans are pictured holding candles as part of a tribute (Daily Mail photo)
Mourning soccer fans in Medellin and the southern Brazilian town of Chapeco, where the team is from, held simultaneous stadium tributes to the victims. Atletico Nacional fans are pictured holding candles as part of a tribute (Daily Mail photo
Mourning soccer fans in Medellin and the southern Brazilian town of Chapeco, where the team is from, held simultaneous stadium tributes to the victims. Atletico Nacional fans are pictured holding candles as part of a tribute (Daily Mail photo)

“We are dealing with the humanitarian aspect of the families and the victims,” Palaoro told reporters in Chapeco. “After that, we are going to have to think about restructuring the team and also the appropriate legal measures.”

Among surviving players, goalkeeper Jackson Follmann’s right leg was amputated, while defender Helio Neto was in intensive care with severe trauma to his skull, thorax and lungs. Fellow defender Alan Ruschel had spinal surgery.

Two of the Bolivian flight crew, Ximena Suarez and Erwin Tumiri, were bruised but not in critical condition, while journalist Rafael Valmorbida was treated in intensive care for multiple rib fractures that partly collapsed a lung.

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